Archive for April, 2012

(This posting also appears at

In the sermon he preached on the mountainside, Matthew records Jesus as saying (in the midst of a long discussion of the worship of, prayer to and trust in God):

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (RSV Chapter 6 v 24)

Why is the original Aramaic word that Jesus used kept in the English Revised Standard Version (and in most English versions)? What can this choice mean: serve God or Mammon? Why the personalization of the concept of Mammon?

Mammon means simply money or wealth but here Jesus elevates it to more than just a monetary conceptualization. He names it as a personal power vying for our allegiance and worship.

French jurist and sociologist Jacques Ellul, in his 1954 work L’homme et l’argent (literally: Man and Money but translated into English as Money and Power) says this about Jesus’ choice of words and its meaning:

We absolutely must not minimize the parallel Jesus draws between God and Mammon. He is not using a rhetorical figure but pointing out a reality. God as a person and Mammon as a person find themselves in conflict. Jesus describes the relation between us and one or the other the same way: it is the relationship between servant and master. Mammon can be a master the same way God is; that is, Mammon can be a personal master…

Jesus is not describing a relationship between us and an object, but between us and an active agent. He is not suggesting that we use money wisely or earn it honestly. He is speaking of a power which tries to be like God, which makes itself our master and which has specific goals.

Thus when we claim to use money, we make a gross error. We can, if we must, use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims… We are not free to direct the use of money one way or another, for we are in the hands of this controlling power. Money is only an outward manifestation of this power, a mode of being, a form to be used in relating to man—exactly as governments, kings and dictators are only forms and appearances of another power clearly described in the Bible, political Power. (Money and Power, pp 76-77)

It may seem that Ellul is overstating the case of money as a power to make some point but his point is simply that we must take Jesus’ statement that money (an embodiment of Mammon) sets itself up as an object of worship—a source of life and meaning—at face value. Any “being” with this aim is powerful indeed.

I don’t think Ellul is overstating the case and I say this because of how money maintains its power to shape human relationships even when we give it away. Let me explain my point and suggest a way I believe we can desacralize money—in at least one way (for our “warfare” against this power must be fought on many fronts).

I did my doctoral research in the West African nation of Mauritania seeking to understand how people survive in such an inhospitable environment. Specifically, I was interested in how people—individuals, families and whole communities—insure themselves against loss in a part of the world in which one cannot purchase insurance in the market. There is no life insurance, health insurance, home insurance, crop or cattle insurance or any other kind of insurance to be had on the deserts edge. And yet, my research showed that people were finding ways to insure themselves against loss. (more…)

This post was published in a local news blog.  It is VERY context specific but I would guess that similar problems are emerging in many counties around the nation.

The Reuters news item was startling:

The WHO [World Health Organization] has convened a special meeting on Wednesday [March 21, 2012] to discuss whether the emergence of TB strains that seem to be resistant to all known medicines merits a new class definition of “totally drug-resistant TB”, or TDR-TB.

If so, it would add a new level to an evolution over the years from normal TB, which is curable with six months of antibiotic treatment, to the emergence of MDR-TB [multi-drug resistant], then extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB).[1]

In the event, the WHO decided not to add this new class due to a lack of information. And while TB has declined over time in the US and is, according to the Centers for Disease Control[2] at its lowest level since 1953 (when national reporting began), it is on the rise in Great Britain (according to Reuters) and the extensively drug resistant strains are emerging in prisons and poor populations around the world.

It is important to note that the emergence of these strains is not part of the natural evolution of the TB bacterium but rather as the Reuters’ article notes:

What’s so frustrating about that progression, says Lucica Ditiu of the WHO’s Stop TB Partnership, is that all drug-resistant TB “is a totally man-made disease”.

Dr Ditiu is referring to improper or incomplete treatment regimens that help spawn drug resistant strains. TB treatments can take 6 months or more to complete and in simple terms, taking a partial treatment has the effect of “killing” the “weakest” forms of the bacterium and allowing the “strongest” to survive and propagate more resistant strains.  Essentially, this is how drug resistant strains of a bacterium (or a parasite as in the case of falciparum malaria) are created.


Easter Week Reflections

Posted: 12 April 2012 in Faith and Life

Warning: Christian Theological Stuff Ahead.  Not for All Tastes.

Reflection 1: What if we really DO live in “The Matrix?”

I sat there with the others, singing the songs, hearing the scripture, taking in the sermon and then taking part in the Eucharist.  It was all the same but something we sang or that someone said brought me up short.  Sort of made me choke.  I thought I might cry.  The story was the story of a people–us, all of us–who have lived our whole lives in a world that is not the world for which we were “made.”

Maybe it came to me in a statement that said that the Cross was God’s way of making things right.  Of bringing about the reconciliation of all of the created order.  Of making everything whole.  Of defeating the distorting powers of our own quest for autonomy (more on this below).  It came to me that if this was true (and if the full force of what happened on the Cross and days later in the tomb had not yet been finally realized), then none of us gathered in that place had ever experienced the world the way it was meant to be.

At best we were living out our alienation with small glimpses of what things could be (will be?) like.  At worst we were living in a distorted reality from which we had no power of our own to escape.  Like Neo–did we feel such pain all the time because we had never used our muscles (our being) in the way they (it) were intended to be used?

Was the Cross–as the minister said–the hinge on which history turned?  Was it the “pill” that offered us the chance to wake up and see the world as it really is so we could get about living into the reality of what it was supposed to be?

Reflection 2. The Price of Autonomy

My mind has drifted to C.S. Lewis’ short novel The Great Divorce. It is the story of a bus trip from the outskirts of hell to heaven (a very Platonic kind of heaven).  In the book hell is an enormous town–but it is empty.  All its occupants have packed up and headed out to destinations unknown–away, always further away.  Always more deeply alone.

I have lived the autonomous life.  Made my way through to the success that can come (only) by leaving behind the strictures of a small minded hometown.  I have found a way to talk about community while never actually submitting to it.  I have learned to value my family while always reserving the right to keep it at arms length if it was “cramping my style.”  I have never submitted to the divine in any practical way (though I have kept God nearby to help out in times of need).

Easter is the story (at least partly) about people in hell being led out of that place. I never understood what that meant.  Then I thought of Jesus seeking out those who had moved so far away from the outskirts of hell that it would take light years for them to return to town (as Lewis portrays the distances involved).  I thought of Jesus taking the time to come to people when they had become thoroughly aware of what their quest for autonomy had wrought in them.  I thought of Jesus making that trip to welcome me back into relationship now that I had drunk the dregs of my choice to be free.

I am tired of the imprisonment of my autonomy.  Easter is the door of my freedom-jail flung open.